AUGUSTA – Arguments over how much land to protect around sensitive habitat known as vernal pools have produced a flurry of lobbying at the State House, pitting LePage administration officials against environmental advocates.

Some lobbyists are suggesting that the administration is misrepresenting the position of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers on how a reduction of the required buffer zone around vernal pools would affect federal regulation.

After meeting in the governor’s office Wednesday with Jay Clement, senior project manager of the Army Corps of Engineers, Patricia Aho, deputy commissioner of the Maine Department of Environmental Protection, issued a memo to state senators.

Nick Bennett, a staff scientist with the Natural Resources Council of Maine, said, “That memo from DEP was at best incomplete, at worst really spinning the Army Corps’ position in an unfair way.”

Clement said Aho’s memo was accurate in the points that it covered, but it didn’t include an additional point he made during the meeting.

“What we also covered was that the current structure of the state’s program and our program relative to vernal pools probably offers the maximum efficiency and the best service to the regulated public,” he said. “We do believe that any change that they make will have perhaps unintended implications for our program and efficiency that currently exists.”

The state is in charge of determining its permitting rules, Clement said, but if it decreases its jurisdiction surrounding vernal pools, “the Corps believes that there will be some increase in the number of applications that have to come to us, and that the level of our review may have to increase.”

DEP spokeswoman Samantha DePoy-Warren said Friday that Aho stands by her memo. DePoy-Warren wrote in an email that “we have seen no concrete evidence to support the Corps’ claim that reducing the buffer could somehow create more federal oversight, and neither our department nor the regulated community would be as supportive of this buffer reduction if we had.”

Vernal pools are small, shallow bodies of water that dry up for part of the year. They are relatively safe places for amphibians to breed and spend the first few weeks of their lives.

Gov. Paul LePage has sought to loosen rules for vernal pools. He and others have argued that state regulations have limited economic development. His original list of proposals to the Legislature aimed at reducing red tape included reducing setback requirements for development around vernal pools.

The Legislature’s Environment and Natural Resources Committee, taking testimony on a variety of similar bills, heard from many residents and the administration that the setback should be reduced from 250 feet to 75 feet.

The committee addressed the issue by clarifying how the DEP should enforce the current laws, not by recommending a change in the distance.

“When we kept digging to find out why that was being brought to us as an issue, we found that it wasn’t the buffer, it was the rule that was being interpreted and enforced,” said Sen. Tom Saviello, R-Wilton. “And because it wasn’t clear, we made it very clear.”

Saviello said the legislation, L.D. 1031, would address the root problem.

The administration is still seeking to change the distance. Several related proposals are expected to be scheduled for votes next week.

MaineToday Media State House Writer Rebekah Metzler can be contacted at 620-7016 or at:

[email protected]